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  • Accessibility And Difficulty: Barriers To Art

    [10.31.19]
    - Daniel St Germain

  • Sekiro; a slain shinobi lays on the ground as enemies walk away, the word and kanji for DEATH in red

    Part II: Variable Difficulty

    Many games that we know and love have variable difficulties. Easy Mode, Hard Mode, Medium, Proud, Critical, Extreme, Epic, Nightmare, FUBAR, Apocalyptic, Silver, Gold, Normal, Story, Narrative, Heroic, Legendary, and on and on, you get the idea. These different modes serve to make each individual enemy or encounter easier or harder - which is logically followed by the game itself being easier or harder. Oftentimes these changes are merely an alteration of the numbers, in line with the more objective difficulty scaling previously mentioned. However, some games (particularly strategy games) typically do more to hamstring or bolster the opponent's AI or behavior, which gets more into subjective difficulty. This variance can change from game to game and genre to genre - FPS difficulty is a different beast than Turn Based Strategy difficulty.

    That said, puzzle games are typically exempt from this, as there are some games where the difficulty lies in determining an answer to a problem, not engaging in a form of combat or an active/reactive foe. But puzzle games could have variable difficulty! And some do; allowing for hints, showing additional clues, or even minimizing certain aspects of a puzzle in order for it to be ‘easier.'

    Generally speaking, this process is done in order to allow more people to play the game. Accessibility for a wider audience to participate in the gameplay experience, which is awesome. But even here there is some variation. Some games have a set difficulty, and only get harder by introducing things like a New Game plus or unlocking additional harder difficulties. This can provide further challenge and engagement for those who like the game and its systems and are looking for a greater challenge.

    Typically, these sorts of games will start out relatively easy and escalate quickly. Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software/2K 2012) is a great example of this, with a pretty straightforward base game, much harder New Game Plus, and then a significant jump upwards for NG+2, the Ultimate Vault Hunter mode. This is, for some, where the real challenge of the game truly begins. For others though, this may be content that is too restrictive, preventing players without enough technical ability from progressing. But even those players have still been able to engage with a nearly all of the game's full content.

    Borderlands 2; a silver handgun with large scope pointed at a treant enemy in a magical forest

    Some games will offer up minor ways of making the game ‘easier' while staying consistent. Heroes of Hammerwatch (CrackShell/Surefire.Games 2018) allows for particular buffs and various levels of pre-gameplay prep to give the players as strong of a chance as possible to ensure success. Even as the game gets progressively more challenging both throughout the floors and between New Game+ iterations, there are always slight optional tweaks that can be made to add or reduce strain for the players.

    Some games, like Dark Souls (From Software/Activision, 2011), have various mechanics in the game that allow for a less dangerous way to play. Generally speaking, using sorceries and magic in the Dark Souls series can be considered an easier way to play, you don't need to get within striking distance of enemies as often and can have less precise timing for attacking and evading. Certain enemies can even be poked and killed from so far away that they don't even notice that they're dying.

    But then there are those games. Games where, like Dark Souls, there may be slightly ‘easier' or less intensive ways to play as previously mentioned, but the game's design and mechanics promote and push towards pretty universal standards of play. All this so far has been a lead up to the popular question that comes around every other year or so. It happened once with Cuphead (Studio MDHR/Marija and Ryan Moldenhauer, 2017), and now the conversation has buzzed up again with SekiroWhat should we do about games that are too difficult for many to play?

    Let's be clear though, this isn't a topic exclusive to challenging action games. I personally stopped playing Ibb and Obb (Codeglue/Sparpweed 2013), an incredibly well-made puzzle game, in no small part because there were some secret bonus puzzles that were so incredibly frustrating to figure out that it drove me up a wall. Logic puzzles, mysteries, and strategy conundrums can be just as frustratingly challenging for different kinds of players as anything found in an action game.

    Ibb and Obb; a green and pink blob face each other on a safe platform before a puzzle below them

    Part III: Why Have Variable Difficulty?

    Having Variable difficulties, however, is an issue that has a tendency to open up its own can of worms. Having modifiers like an Easy Mode can be humiliating in its own way, especially when the game goes out of its way to add a bit of flavor text to it with belittling descriptions like, "this is the best mode for noobs," "casuals," "weaklings," or other similar language.

    As a side note, you might be thinking to yourself that those are "objective terms describing the player's skill level," and even if they are, which they aren't really, it is still a demeaning way to be talked to especially by a piece of entertainment and art (especially one that you paid for to have fun). For a lot of people, playing on the easiest difficulty can be just as embarrassing for them as playing on the hardest difficulty can be a badge of honor for others. Many people, myself included, will insist on playing games on the hardest difficulty available. Personally I do it because I find most of a game's issues get magnified on harder difficulties, I tend to enjoy the extra challenge, plus I also like the small ego boost that comes with it.

    But some of the most interesting variable difficulty comes not from selectable difficulty, but under-the-hood difficulty. A small study was actually conducted by Robin Hunicke of Northwestern University about The Case for Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment in Games. The experiment uses an algorithm to, among other things, change the difficulty of a first-person shooter game. This is done via changes on the "Supply" side which is defined as health packs, ammunition, and weapons. Other interventions can include modifying the player's hit points, the strength of their attacks and weapons, their accuracy, and properties of items in the playfield or player inventory. As well as on the "Demand" side, which is defined as interventions that can manipulate the impact of enemies by changing their class, number, hit points, weapon, or location (before spawn). They may also adjust enemy attack strength, accuracy or AI states and so on (Hunicke, 2004).

    Heroes of Hammerwatch; a Paladin fights glowing wisps and ghastly eyeballs in a maze-like library

    The experiment wasn't necessarily trying to ruin the game through variable difficulty. Instead it was trying to ensure an equal level of challenge and discomfort, while still maintaining a feeling of safety for players at all skill ranges. In more ways than one, the experiment worked quite well.

    "There was little correlation between a player's self-rating (with respect to games in general or Case Closed in particular) and their actual performance. In both adjusted and unadjusted games, several players who rated themselves relatively high (3-5) performed on par with others who had rated themselves as novices (1-2), and vice-versa.

    Regardless of aptitude or exposure, it seems, people are likely to assume that they have failed to meet the standard for expert (5) or even good (3) performance. In the post-test debriefing, several subjects bemoaned their poor performance, despite ranking in the top third.

    Subjects' perceptions of difficulty did not correlate with their self-rating, either. Experts familiar with Half-Life and novices who rarely play shooters both rated the game as somewhat to extremely difficult (3-5). As of yet, there is no significant correlation between adjustment and difficulty evaluation (Hunicke, 2004)."

    Now, keep in mind, that means that both expert and novice players rated the game as very difficult after their difficulties were adjusted. Unfortunately, the experiment did not ask a question I believe is central to the topic of variable difficulty (and this application of it in particular). I wish the experiment also recorded responses and feedback after each player was told that the game's difficulty was altered on the fly. Having a game ask you mid-fight if you want to lower the difficulty can feel insulting for some, if not most players. In the event where a game takes the liberty of changing the difficulty without telling you, this can sting pretty badly. Especially if scores, achievements, or any kind of recorded or personal metric is involved.

    As such this can be a dangerous method with regards to player enjoyment. It might be fine until players start talking with each other and learning about what the algorithm looks for. Even if it doesn't necessarily come down to players gaming the system in order to perhaps overcome a boss that they might be struggling with by simply throwing themselves at it endlessly, it still has a huge impact on the experience. So now, we get to the meat of it.

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